In 1922, another of Ella Lynch’s titles was published: Bookless Lessons for the Teacher–Mother, offering more help to those parents wishing to effectively teach their children. On that front, big battles were brewing. Attempts were under way to legislate rural schools out of existence and force centralization.
Lynch said that because tax dollars were taken from the public, “It is right that the state should assist in educating children. It is not right that it should absolutely control that education in everything. It is not right that parents should be obliged to feed and clothe their children, and take care of them in sickness, and pay their doctor and dentist bills, and be compelled to send them to school and have no voice in the substance or methods of those children’s studies. Our authority is weak enough now, goodness knows. Let us be careful how we weaken it further.”
She fought vigorously for years against allowing city-school policies to permeate rural America. Among the high-profile organizations supporting her contentions was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. After studying American schools, Carnegie’s findings, said Lynch, “Have jarred the educational world, for it says that our system of public education is becoming alarmingly superficial, is fostering ‘educational farces,’ and building up ‘delusive courses.’ ”
Ella promised that any community “Could have the kind of school I am conducting … and it will cost you no more than you are now paying. But you must want it badly enough to work for it as I have worked, and you must not wait for the state Department of Education to bring it to you.”
By 1924, her successful books had earned international fame for Lynch. Other countries were deeply interested in her work, prompting a trip to England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Switzerland. Her path to England was eased by letters of introduction from the British Ambassador, but Ella was welcome wherever she went.
In 1925, the National League of Mother–Teachers had grown to 25,000 members “scattered in every civilized country around the world.” Lynch had authored three books and taught in about a half-dozen states in everything from one-room schoolhouses to large city institutions. Through it all, her passion never waned and her teaching basics remained the same: start children early at home, beginning with obedience, which leads to self-discipline—and from there, everything flows much more easily.
She also recognized early on that education suffered when it was run like a business. Perhaps the business plan seemed natural since America had many of the world’s most successful companies. But as Lynch noted, “The passion for standardization, which has such an all-embracing influence in America, ranging from bathtub stoppers and typewriter keyboards to the mind processes of children, has been so successful that the schools are nearly all graded, divided, and coordinated on the same principles and in the same manner. The watchword is ‘quantity production and interchangeable parts.’ You simply can’t do it with human beings.”
In 1925 she published another book, Beginning the Child’s Education. Said Elizabethtown’s (New York) George Brown in a review: “Behind Miss Lynch’s specific practical advice on such questions as work, play, and discipline is her sound theory of education—that the effort of the teacher should be not to fill the child’s head with a mass of unrelated facts, but always to lead out and develop its own inherent possibilities. As she says on page 70: ‘Think of each day as a period of growth rather than of acquisition of facts.’ ”
She often emphasized the importance of religious training as a valuable component of education. While many of us (including me) might disagree, religious and military training require and share one very important facet of learning: self-discipline. As Ella herself said, “The home educates, while the public school merely instructs.” With self-discipline instilled early on, many more positives can be extracted later from public schooling.
Ella routinely received hundreds of letters per week from around the world and attempted to answer all of them, either personally or by dictating to assistants. It was an exhaustive task, but very important to a famous writer pursuing her passion.
In 1926 she was off once again to Europe, sailing from Montreal for Glasgow, with plans to spend three months in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. There she expounded on important points in her latest book, including this: “The child’s natural playmates are his parents, so plan to let him “help” [with daily chores] and thus become self-reliant, for at an early age, small duties and exactions may be lived up to. The most valued things in life, the well-trained mind and body, the well-balanced character, are closely associated with the habit of work.
“Moreover, allowing children to avoid disliked tasks and always to expect to find a pleasant, playful way of doing things is a mistaken note in training; thus there is no challenge left for their healthy development.” With European children, it was noted, “Little pity is shown the dull and lazy.” At that time, American children were assessed as lagging two years behind their European counterparts.
Ella also supported child-labor laws in America, but resisted the cutoff point of 18 years old, favoring14 or 15 instead. Otherwise, she said, farmers in particular would be handicapped, and a wonderful educational tool—learning discipline and responsibility while helping to support one’s own family—would be lost. (The same arguments were made recently in the US regarding a proposed farm bill.)
Lynch’s insights challenged certain standards and were real eye-openers. For instance, “Some schools used to be rather good, but that is hardly true now. The chief objection to schooling as it is scientifically administered is that it interferes with education. Formerly, the good schools were a real help to parents in their work of child training, but compulsory attendance, minute grading, mental testing and averaging, an overstocked curriculum, and the assumption of infallibility by school administrators have changed all that…. The school spoils much good material, but the best school in the world cannot make over the child given a wrong start at home.
“The first question for earnest parents to ask themselves is, ‘Can I save my children from graded schooling?’ And if no reasonable solution to the problem can be found, let them next ask themselves, ‘For how long can I save them from the graded school?’ ”
In 1926, Ella built a new house near the Lynch homestead, for she routinely returned to Minerva as her lifelong home. There she entertained guests, including the famous and wealthy who were deeply interested in her methods of teaching.
A Lynch editorial from 1928 could just as easily have been written today. “Our country is suffering from over-schooling and under-education. The teachers are not to blame. Before the bewildering complexity of overstuffed courses, the individual teacher is helpless…. There is a school, however, that may be readily transformed into as fine an educational institution as America has ever seen. That is the little rural school. Every rural school should be a school of individual instruction.”
Many like-minded women of great wealth and high social standing were firmly behind Ella’s efforts to educate children. Their support and influence were valuable assets. Among those to visit Ella at Minerva that year was Mrs. Maurice du Pont de Nemours, whose European connections aided Lynch’s cause.
In 1929, at a meeting of the Essex County Rural School Improvement Society, Ella announced a new endeavor—a worldwide organization for home-teaching. Her strong dislike for bureaucracy in favor of simplicity was evident in the plan to unite similar groups around the globe. Initially, this included Belgium’s highly successful Ligue de l’Education Familiale, the Mothers’ Union of the British Isles, and the United Irishwomen of the Irish Free State. One concession from Ella’s perspective: though religious instruction was part of the education plan, the league would remain non-sectarian.
Assisting her on the formative committee were British Ambassador Sir Esme Howard and his wife, Lady Isabella Howard, two very prominent and beloved public figures in America. Lady Howard was already a strong and vocal supporter of Lynch’s International League of Mother–Teachers.
Next week, the conclusion: Battling for parental rights
Photos: A Lynch book cover; headlines (1925 & 1926)